Texas A&M Aggies: Deshazor Everett

Kevin SumlinAP Photo/Butch DillAggies coach Kevin Sumlin still found himself answering questions about his departed star quarterback Johnny Manziel at Tuesday's SEC media days.


HOOVER, Alabama -- In the back right corner of Ballroom C of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham, the main interview room for SEC media days, Texas A&M punter Drew Kaser sat during his scheduled slot and gladly answered every question that came his way from the handful of reporters surrounding him.

He sat in the same spot that the most popular and polarizing figure in Texas A&M football history did a year ago, when Johnny Manziel sat surrounded by seemingly hundreds of reporters asking about every aspect of his offseason. The crowd around Kaser in Ballroom C on Tuesday could sometimes be counted with two hands.

What a difference a year makes.

Last season the Aggies were the center of attention at SEC media days, thanks in large part to Manziel. He was then the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who made news not only with his play on the field but his life off of it, coined "The Summer of Johnny."

Manziel still had a presence Tuesday -- the first question asked to Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin invoked Manziel's offseason, to which Sumlin replied, "That's a great question ... about the Cleveland Browns." -- but the Aggies weren't under the microscope quite like they were in 2013.

Even senior cornerback Deshazor Everett noticed. Asked what it's like not having Manziel on the team, Everett quipped, "Less media attention," which elicited laughter from the media contingent.

"I love the guy to death but the cameras follow him," Everett said.

In some ways, the Aggies bear a slight resemblance to the group that had so many question marks surrounding it in the summer of 2012, when they were about to begin their life as SEC members.

Two years ago, Sumlin and his players were peppered with questions about how they would survive life in the rugged SEC, who their quarterback was going to be and whether their defense could hold up in a conference built on strong offensive line play. Outsider expectations weren't high then and they aren't terribly high now, either.

On Tuesday, Sumlin proactively addressed the quarterback situation without addressing it, stating flatly that he isn't naming a starter until mid-August. The defense, which was often poor in 2013 and was last in the SEC in numerous statistical categories, was again the subject of numerous questions. And the Aggies have yet to finish higher than third in the SEC West since joining; with three first-round NFL draft picks gone, questions abound about the young players and whether they're ready to meet the challenge.

"I don't believe it's a rebuilding year," Everett said. "We have players that are ready to play."

Maybe it's a good thing for the Aggies. While the publicity was ultimately beneficial for Texas A&M as a football program, the Aggies had marked success in 2012 when they were a largely off-the-radar team coming into the year, one that few thought could be serious contenders in the SEC. Manziel's rare ability and presence was a huge factor in that success, but Sumlin is banking on the talent his two competing quarterbacks (Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill) have as well as the talent the Aggies have hauled in on the recruiting trail, where the Aggies have scored two top-10 national classes in the past two years and are on track for a third this cycle.

One thing that was similar to last season were the questions about off-the-field "distractions." There might not be Manziel to take the headlines, but the Aggies had nine arrests this offseason and three players dismissed from the team (two of whom contributed to that arrest total), so it's not as though the Aggies have been out of the spotlight.

Sumlin seems to be unaffected by it all. He handled his SEC debut in 2012 smoothly and weathered the storm that surrounded Manziel a year ago. This year, he seemed as comfortable as ever. The Aggies hope to show a similar level of comfort in the SEC this fall by answering those lingering questions.

"It's all part of it," Sumlin said. "The first year was a bit of whirlwind ... last year was obviously a lot different situation ... I'm feeling like a veteran for the first time."
If Texas A&M plans to be a serious factor in the SEC West race this fall, the Aggies will have to see significant improvement from their defense.

After a season of struggles where they ranked last or near last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories, the Aggies hope that some of the young players who were thrown into the fire last season benefit from that experience and show marked improvement in 2014 and that the added depth from another top-10 recruiting class can continue to raise the talent level on that side of the football.

Last week during the SEC's post-spring football teleconference, coach Kevin Sumlin discussed the state of the Aggies' defense after spring practice.

When it comes to the defensive line, the coaching staff wasn't able to get a complete picture because of players that sat out with injuries, like defensive ends Jay Arnold, Daeshon Hall and Gavin Stansbury.

"The positives are it forced Alonzo Williams and Tyrell Taylor and Hardreck Walker and Julien [Obioha] and guys like that to really step in there and get a bunch of reps," Sumlin said. "The D-line was really kind of hard to evaluate, but because of the injuries, I thought our linebackers got better."

At linebacker, Sumlin noted that one young player showed significant progress and began stepping into a leadership role.

"I thought Jordan Mastrogiovanni solidified himself in the middle and has really taken charge and really made some steps," Sumlin said. "If anything happened there, I thought that Jordan has really kind of taken over as the leader of our defense, and that's a good thing when you're young and you've played some football."

As for the secondary, Sumlin acknowledged the need for improvement at safety and that the decision to keep senior Deshazor Everett -- who flip-flopped between cornerback and safety last season -- at corner has helped him improve.

"The decision to keep Deshazor at corner has helped him," Sumlin said. "No doubt, our safety play has got to improve and our D-line play has got to improve. We will have more depth up front, but we'll have more pieces. We just have to get the right pieces in place and get them ready to go."
When it comes to Texas A&M's spring, the first question surrounding the Aggies often relates to the quarterback battle and who is in the lead to succeed Johnny Manziel.

The next question is usually relates to the defense, and how much better -- if at all -- the unit will be after a disastrous 2013 season.

While neither can be definitively answered, when it comes to the defense, there is at least some reason for optimism coming out of spring football. The Aggies can't get much worse than they were a year ago, when the ranked last or near last in the SEC in virtually every major statistical category, but there were signs during spring practice that indicate that brighter days are ahead for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder's group.

One reason the Aggies have to feel better about their defense is the experience they'll have. Last year the root of the struggles seemed to be the youth and inexperience up and down the depth chart, with the Aggies having as many as a dozen freshmen in the defensive two-deep.

Though the Aggies will still be relatively young in some areas (particularly linebacker), most of the players who are candidates to start or see significant time were thrown in the fire last season.

Middle linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni is a perfect example. Though he'll only be a sophomore this fall, he started against Alabama last Sept. 14 and in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against Duke. Mastrogiovanni called it "overwhelming," but as the guy getting first-team work at his position this spring, coaches have heaped praise upon the former ESPN 300 prospect.

Should defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne return from suspensions (both missed the spring after February arrests), they too will benefit. Both started a large portion of the season as true freshmen.

Other players who could be in position to contribute, such as linebacker Shaan Washington or cornerback Noel Ellis, weren't starters but saw enough field time to give them a taste of what life in the SEC is like.

Add to those young players a host of returning veterans, such as the starting secondary of Deshazor Everett, De'Vante Harris, Howard Matthews and Julien Obioha, Gavin Stansbury and Alonzo Williams and the Aggies can begin piecing together a more experienced defense.

With so many players returning (nine starters return from last year's defense) and a top-five recruiting class on the way, the Aggies will continue to add to their talent level on defense. One defensive player is already on campus (defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson) and showed flashes of his potential during spring football.

With players like defensive end Myles Garrett, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect, ESPN 300 athlete Nick Harvey, who will be a defensive back at Texas A&M and other ESPN 300 prospects like Deshawn Washington, Otaro Alaka, Qualen Cunningham, Armani Watts and Josh Walker, competition will only increase when preseason training camp starts.


The increased depth on the defensive line could be the biggest factor in helping the defense improve. Snyder indicated how critical it was earlier this month.

"Up front for the first time, we're going to be able to roll people," Snyder said. "I told [defensive line coach] Terry [Price] … that when we get to the fall, we're going to have to practice our rotations, which is a great thing."

For the Aggies, there really is nowhere to go but up defensively. They could be another year away from being the kind of defense they hope to be, but the developments this spring suggest at least some improvement is in order in 2014.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — While Texas A&M had no formal Maroon and White game to cap spring football as construction continues at Kyle Field, the Aggies did conduct one last scrimmage on Saturday at the Coolidge grass practice fields to close things out.

The 15th and final practice of the spring for the 2014 Aggies went as smoothly as coach Kevin Sumlin could have hoped, as no major injuries were reported. It put a cap on an interesting spring for the squad.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsSenior cornerback Deshazor Everett was generally pleased with how the defense played during Texas A&M's final spring scrimmage.
"It went well," senior offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi said. "Young guys got a lot of reps. The three quarterbacks, they battled hard. Overall, it was a fun last spring [as a senior]."

Ogbuehi called the offensive performance "kind of shaky" on Saturday and noted that the Aggies' defense performed well. It appears Texas A&M is still jelling with new players at the key skill positions on offense and with a couple new faces on the offensive line. Starting left guard Jarvis Harrison sat out the spring, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

"There are still young quarterbacks and new quarterbacks, a young O-line," Ogbuehi said. "We'll get there, but it was kind of shaky today and hats off to the defense. They played fast and hard and it's good for them."

Senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, one of the leaders of the Aggies' defense, seemed mostly pleased with how his unit fared.

"I think [Saturday] was pretty good," Everett said. "We had a few plays that we should have made a play, but we didn't. But I can't really say there are any lowlights. We went out there and competed with the offense."

The defense is a focal point for observers this offseason as the Aggies ranked last or near last in the SEC in most major defensive statistical categories last season. Everett noted how the unit progressed from scrimmage to scrimmage as March turned to April.

"The first scrimmage, we went out there and we competed just like this," Everett said. "The second scrimmage, it [didn't go] as well, but we still came out in the second half of the scrimmage and did a good job with the offense. This scrimmage, we pretty much stopped them and competed with them. That's what we need to do so we can go into the season with this motivation, that we can compete with anybody."

The future tasks for the team are clear. The defense must improve. The veteran secondary has to become more consistent, especially at safety. The defensive line needs to improve its level of play and depth and the Aggies hope to find the right mix at linebacker, a group that's likely to include a lot of youth.

On offense, the quarterback battle among Matt Joeckel, Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen will carry into the summer and preseason training camp. An offensive line that returns four of five starters should help, as should a running back group that returns three lettermen, but there are battles for jobs in both areas. There also will be many new faces at receiver.

After 15 practices, the Aggies believe they have improved and will spend this summer trying to continue that progress.

"We're still far away from where we need to be," Ogbuehi said. "But we're progressing every day. It's a plus, but we're still far from where we need to be that great team."

Video: Texas A&M CB Deshazor Everett

April, 1, 2014
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Aggies CB Deshazor Everett talks with Mark Schlabach about spring practice and rebuilding the A&M defense.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M’s defense struggled across the board in 2013, and the Aggies can use all the help, and depth, they can get in order to improve in 2014.

That is probably more true at safety than any other position. It’s a spot the Aggies have found challenges when trying to maintain or add talent and depth, with the latest hurdle coming recently as spring practice opened.

The loss of safety Kameron Miles, whom the Aggies announced officially on Thursday had been dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons, isn’t cause for panic because as head coach Kevin Sumlin pointed out, Miles didn’t see the field at all last season.

[+] EnlargeClay Honeycutt
Juan DeLeon/Icon SMIClay Honeycutt is one of the returning players Texas A&M hopes will fill the open safety positions.
But it is cause for concern at position of need for the Aggies. This is one of the biggest challenges facing new Texas A&M secondary coach Terry Joseph this spring.

Safety is certainly a position where they need to see on-field improvement, both from the 2013 contributors who are returning this season (Clay Honeycutt, Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven) and the new bodies that could step in.

So while Miles -- an ESPN 300 recruit who signed in the 2013 class -- didn’t play (he redshirted after missing all of preseason training camp recovering from a knee injury), he certainly was a candidate to do so this season. Losing him is impactful, especially considering his potential and the rough end to Class of 2014 recruiting at the position.

Texas A&M had an ESPN 300 safety committed to them for months in Dylan Sumner-Gardner, but he switched his commitment to Boise State in early January after former secondary coach Marcel Yates left his post in Aggieland to accept the defensive coordinator position at Boise State. Even before Sumner-Gardner’s switch, the Aggies were still trying to add another safety to the 2014 recruiting class.

The loss made finding a safety even more urgent in the class. The Aggies long recruited ESPN 300 safety Steven Parker II (who signed with Oklahoma) and made a late run at ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw (who signed with Oregon), not to mention other ESPN 300 prospects whom they recruited earlier in the process but decided on other programs.

The Aggies were able to land a safety late in the 2014 recruiting cycle when three-star athlete Donovan Wilson (Shreveport, La./Woodlawn) committed four days before national signing day and inked a letter of intent with the Aggies. He will enroll at Texas A&M for the fall semester, but whether he will be able to have an impact this fall is unknown until he arrives on campus.

Texas A&M has commitments from two elite safeties in the 2015 recruiting class in ESPN Junior 300 prospects Justin Dunning and Larry Pryor Jr., but that has no bearing on this fall.

What is known is that the Aggies need the three who played the most last season to improve and for others to contribute. One name Sumlin mentioned on Thursday was junior safety Devonta Burns, a 6-foot, 214-pounder who contributed mostly on special teams last season.

“Devonta Burns is having a really, really good camp,” Sumlin said. “He’s been around here a long time and really was a good special teams player for us from game three, four, five, on. It’s about time for him to start showing up and he has. You’ve got three guys back there [Honeycutt, Matthews and Raven] who have played a lot, not always well, but have played and are experienced and need to step up. I think Devonta is right in the mix with the other three guys.”

The Aggies also have the services of 6-3, 213-pound sophomore Jonathan Wiggins, a 2013 signee who saw most of his time on special teams last season. Beyond him, the options consist of mostly walk-ons such as Sam Moeller (last year’s 12th Man) or perhaps even someone like Shane Huhn, a transfer from UTEP who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules.

Another potential option is using the secondary’s best player, senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, at safety. Everett has flip-flopped between cornerback and safety before, including on certain occasions last season when the Aggies needed the help. However, it appears that Everett is working exclusively at cornerback, and Sumlin said he doesn’t anticipate that changing, at least “Not right now.”

Everett said last week that he has seen improvement from the safety returnees, especially Matthews.

“He’s a different player now,” Everett said of Matthews. “He’s not lagging around or doing it his way. He’s playing hard, he’s going hard every play, he’s being vocal. That’s what we need at the back end from the safeties, because they have to communicate to everybody on the defense. He’s definitely changed.”

“Floyd is definitely understanding the defense more, and Clay has always been a smart player. With the new coaching change and the way we’re running it, it’s set up so that you can always make plays and always be in the right position, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

The Aggies’ secondary also have new blood in the form of Joseph, the former Nebraska secondary coach. The reviews for Joseph have been positive thus far, including from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who called Joseph a “technician” and “fundamentalist.”

Everett also has noticed his new position coach’s impact thus far.

“He’s a real vocal coach and he wants you to do it exactly the way he wants you to do it, and there’s no other way about it,” Everett said. “If you’re not going to do it his way, you’re not going to play, so you have to adjust to that and you have to go out there and do it his way.”

If Joseph has it his way, there will be more answers than questions at safety come August. Fortunately for the Aggies, three weeks remain in spring practice to find some.

TAMU to-do list: Find the leaders

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Editor's note: This is the second part of a week-long series looking at the five most pressing concerns Texas A&M faces this offseason.

Strong player leadership is something Texas A&M has been fortunate to have in Kevin Sumlin's first two seasons.

During the 2012 season, players such as linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, center Patrick Lewis and receiver Ryan Swope were among those cited by coaches and teammates as carrying that responsibility.

[+] EnlargeMalcome Kennedy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsSoon-to-be senior Malcome Kennedy, who caught 7 TD passes last season, could be called upon as a leader on the Texas A&M offense.
As those players and others tabbed as leaders moved on, the Aggies looked to guys such as running back Ben Malena, left tackle Jake Matthews and defensive back Toney Hurd Jr., among others. And certainly, the team's two best players, Mike Evans and Johnny Manziel, set a standard with their level of play.

As we continue our look at the offseason to-do list for Texas A&M, it seems appropriate that finding the next wave of leaders is high on the list, because all of those above names are gone via graduation or the NFL draft.

The Aggies will be young on both sides of the ball with underclassmen playing in several key positions, potentially even at quarterback. Offensively, senior tackle Cedric Ogbuehi could be one of the players the Aggies turn to.

Ogbuehi, who passed up a chance to enter the NFL draft early to return for his final season, has 30 career starts and has been an integral part of the Aggies' successful first two seasons in the SEC.

Soon-to-be senior Malcome Kennedy, the returning statistical leader among the Aggies receivers after the departure of three starters at the position, is another possibility. Going into 2012, receivers coach David Beaty applauded Kennedy's work ethic and improvement in the offseason and Kennedy emerged into a reliable target for Manziel throughout the season.

On defense, could Deshazor Everett -- who will be a senior -- be one of those candidates? He has 22 starts under his belt, all of which have come in the last two seasons, and he has been a linchpin in the Aggies' secondary with the ability to move between cornerback and safety. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder lauded Everett's willingness to do so when the Aggies were trying to mix and match players in the defensive backfield.

Younger players could be candidates as well. Players such as center Mike Matthews and running back Trey Williams, who will both be juniors, have received playing time in each of the last two seasons and are players to keep an eye on. Before a December arrest in which he was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Darian Claiborne -- who started in nine games as a true freshman at a new position, middle linebacker -- seemed to be a potential candidate, though how he responds from his legal incident will be worth watching.

As the Aggies progress through offseason workouts and head into spring football in a couple months, there will almost certainly be players step forward and emerge as naturals in these roles.

Earlier to-do list posts:

A&M finds success in Louisiana

November, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When it comes to the presence schools have in their respective home states, few are stronger than LSU in the state of Louisiana.

The Tigers' success, conference affiliation and game day atmosphere are just a few of the unique advantages for natives of the Pelican State.

[+] EnlargeDarian Claiborne
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesTexas A&M freshman Darian Claiborne (48) took over the middle linebacker job before the fourth game of the season.
Port Allen (Louisiana) High School head coach Guy Blanchard vividly remembers the emotions of one of his players, Darian Claiborne, when LSU took a tough loss early in 2012.

"When Darian was in January of his junior year (of high school) and LSU lost the national championship game to Alabama, you would have thought his best friend died the next day at school," Blanchard said. "He was a big LSU fan. You can't grow up in Southeast Louisiana and not have some kind of attachment or an eye on the prize, however you want to say it, [to LSU]."

Claiborne, a true freshman, is now the starting middle linebacker for No. 12 Texas A&M, which heads to Death Valley on Saturday to play No. 22 LSU. But Port Allen is fewer than seven miles from the LSU campus, so it's understandable how he could have envisioned a future with the Bayou Bengals.

But Texas A&M’s staff developed a strong relationship with Claiborne, a three-star prospect. Furthermore, the Aggies made a strong impression and made it clear they wanted him while LSU didn’t officially extend an offer. The Aggies’ diligence paid off because Claiborne has played a key part on the A&M defense.

In recent years, Texas A&M has had success recruiting the state of Louisiana. Texas is and will continue to be the home base for Texas A&M recruiting for good reason -- it's fertile recruiting ground that most colleges attempt to pick from, because of the vast number of players and caliber of talent the state produces. But Louisiana is also known for producing high-caliber recruits as well and head coach Kevin Sumlin has made sure to make "The Boot" part of his recruiting footprint.

Currently, the Aggies have nine players that are from Louisiana on the roster and all of them are on the Aggies' two deep. Some of them have been recruited by the current staff, others are holdovers from the previous staff, but all of them currently contribute on the field.

All nine are defensive players and five of them are regular starters: Claiborne, defensive back Deshazor Everett, defensive ends Julien Obioha, safety Floyd Raven and defensive end Gavin Stansbury. The others have played key roles: true freshman cornerback Noel Ellis has seen significant time in recent weeks and is the Aggies' future at the nickel cornerback position. Cornerback Tramain Jacobs started six games this season while the Aggies' dealt with injuries in the secondary and has been a reliable rotation player among the cornerbacks. True freshman linebacker Shaan Washington has found his way onto the field in a special teams capacity but also saw time at linebacker early in the year and defensive tackle Ivan Robinson has been a part of the rotation at his position when healthy.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett, another Louisiana native, was recruited my Mike Sherman's staff but has been the Aggies' most reliable defensive back.
There's no doubt the Aggies have received bang for their buck with the "Louisianimals," the term former Texas A&M center Patrick Lewis coined for his fellow Louisiana products last season. Claiborne and Everett have been arguably the Aggies' best defensive players this season. Everett has done whatever the Texas A&M coaches have asked, whether it's playing safety while Raven was injured or going back to his traditional position of cornerback, while playing with a broken thumb early in the year. Claiborne got the starting job at middle linebacker -- which is not his traditional position -- before the fourth game of the season and hasn't let go of it.

Stansbury has emerged as a playmaker while Obioha and Raven have each been a steady presence at their respective positions.

Even when he was at Houston, where the Cougars put their primary focus on their own city, Sumlin's staff would travel across the border to recruit talent out of Louisiana. But in the SEC it's a different story, because the caliber of player Texas A&M is searching for is often the same that LSU is trying to keep in state.

With the Tigers being the signature program in Louisiana, it makes it all the more difficult to pull a kid out of the state when LSU wants him.

The Aggies are experiencing that in their early SEC years. In this recruiting cycle, the Aggies are going after some of Louisiana's finest, like ESPN 300 athlete Speedy Noil and ESPN 300 defensive end Gerald Willis III. The Aggies are also trying to make inroads with the top 2015 prospects from the state, like receiver Tyron Johnson.

All have LSU offers and the battle for Noil and Willis III has been hotly contested and will be until signing day approaches.

But the Aggies have found success in recruiting prospects from the state that might have been overlooked or not as heavily pursued. If those players continue to play like Claiborne, the in-state powerhouse will start taking notice.

"Yeah, we've run across them at times," said LSU coach Les Miles of seeing A&M recruiting in Louisiana. "We recognize some of the [players] that they have there, and we wish them the very best. It's an opportunity to play in this league, and we're for that."

Reason for optimism for A&M defense?

October, 30, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense has taken a beating – on the field and off – throughout the season.

On the field, it has been the statistically the worst in the SEC in total defense, yards per play, rushing defense and near the bottom in several other categories. The national rankings in many areas have been in the 100s. As a result, the unit has taken a heap of criticism, especially when compared with the team's high-powered offense which puts up points in bunches.

[+] EnlargeHoward Matthews
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsHoward Matthews and the Aggies had their best defensive performance of the season in the win over Vanderbilt. Matthews had 14 tackles and an interception.
But on Saturday in a 56-24 win over Vanderbilt, the Aggies' defense got up off the mat and punched back, putting together a strong performance against the Commodores. Texas A&M allowed only 329 total yards, 95 rushing, forced three turnovers and had a season-high seven sacks.

For once, the defense was a source of positive discussion.

"I feel like we finally put together a complete game," senior linebacker Nate Askew said. "There weren’t a lot of blown coverages or assignments gap-wise. That was the biggest thing and having fun out there."

The sack totals were particularly eye-opening because Texas A&M had been one of the country's worst in generating a pass rush before Saturday. The Aggies had seven sacks total entering Saturday's game, but matched the season tally in one day.

The reason? More blitz calls from defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, who said he finally felt comfortable dialing up more pressure. As the defense continued to see players go in and out of the lineup all season for various reasons (suspensions, injuries, inept play), it was a challenge to get a group of 11 players that Snyder felt he could trust to be in the right place in the right time, especially considering how much youth is on that side of the ball (11 freshmen exist in the two-deep depth chart).

But as players begin to settle into their roles and get more comfortable, especially in the secondary, Snyder is beginning to feel more comfortable taking risks. The group back there on Saturday – cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris along with safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven – were the projected four starters at the beginning of the year but have rarely been on the field together for one reason or another.

"We need to stay healthy and keep the young DBs coming along and learning," Snyder said. "There is a degree of difficulty for the back end to do some of the things we do and to have those guys all in place helped a lot."

It also helped that Vanderbilt's starting quarterback on Saturday, Patton Robinette, was a freshman making his first career start, though Snyder said the game plan appeared to be the same as the previous week when the Commodores beat Georgia. Considering that Texas A&M struggled to stop virtually everybody this season, including FCS team Sam Houston State and Rice, whom it gave up 306 rushing yards to in the season opener, any positive sign is a good one for the Aggies.

So is Saturday's performance reason for optimism with the A&M defense or will they simply revert back to previous ways moving forward? It might be hard to tell this week, because the No. 12 Aggies host a struggling nonconference opponent in UTEP (1-6). Should the Aggies repeat what they did on Saturday for a second straight week, however, they could build some momentum to take into the home stretch of their conference slate as they finish up the year against Mississippi State, LSU and Missouri.

If the Aggies can stay healthy and keep the personnel consistent on that side of the ball, Snyder can continue to be aggressive in his calls. That aggressiveness was one trait of the 2012 A&M defense, which was surprisingly good despite question marks on the defensive line, about depth in general and was a key part to Texas A&M's inaugural 11-2 campaign in the SEC.

With an open date following the Aggies final two home games before they have to hit the road for battles at LSU and Missouri to close out the year, the defense will need to continue to improve if the Aggies have hopes of winning the remainder of their games.

"I think at this point what happens is for them to have some success Saturday I thought was important and hopefully we were better," coach Kevin Sumlin said. "We were not great by any means and hopefully because of some success, particularly by the young guys and some success as a defense, we'll continue to get better and gain some confidence from that because that's going to be important moving forward."

Why A&M has so much youth on defense

October, 25, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The words "youth" and "inexperience" are frequently used to describe the Texas A&M defense this season.

The struggles are significant. The Aggies rank near the bottom of the FBS in most defensive statistical categories. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the five teams that have allowed more yards per game than the Aggies -- New Mexico State, Idaho, California, Nevada and Indiana -- have a combined record of 8-27.

Texas A&M is fortunate enough to have a 5-2 record (2-2 in the SEC). It certainly helps to have one of the nation's most high-powered offenses and a reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback (Johnny Manziel).

For defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and his staff, it has been a challenge from the start of the season. Suspensions, injuries and ineffectiveness are all to blame.

The Aggies currently have 11 freshmen in their defensive two-deep depth chart. Two true freshmen (defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne) are starting. The four defensive line first-team spots include Golden and two sophomores. At linebacker, a former receiver who moved to linebacker this offseason (Nate Askew) is the starter at strongside linebacker. Of the seven linebackers on the Aggies' two-deep, only one (Steven Jenkins) started a full season at the position before this year.

Head coach Kevin Sumlin's first signing class that was completely under his watch had 32 members, 18 of whom were on defense. Of those 18, a dozen have already played this season.

But how did the Aggies get to this point, playing this many freshmen and newcomers? There are some juniors and seniors on the field, but there aren't nearly as many as there were a year ago when the Aggies went 11-2 in their debut season in the SEC.

In 2012, the Aggies were fortunate to have the benefit of some good leaders on defense and others who were productive. At linebacker, Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart both provided leadership and production. Along the defensive line, Spencer Nealy made the move from defensive end to defensive tackle effectively despite not having the ideal size for the position. Steven Terrell was a steady and heady player at free safety. All four of those players were seniors and part of the 2009 recruiting class. So was Dustin Harris, who didn't always start but played plenty at cornerback and was the team's primary punt returner.

One defensive player still remains from that 2009 class: defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who started last season and this year but suffered a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 28 against Arkansas. But last year's A&M starting defense was more than half made up of what turned out to be a solid recruiting class on the defensive side of the ball.

So to understand why A&M is in the position it is now, take a look at the recruiting classes on defense since then:
  • In 2010, the Aggies signed seven defensive players and two more that were offensive players but eventually moved to defense. Defensive end Damontre Moore turned out to be a star, but declared for early entry into the 2013 NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. For a team that's lacking in its pass rush (only three FBS teams have fewer sacks than Texas A&M's seven this season) a guy like that could help. Of the remainders in that class, three are starting: Toney Hurd Jr. at nickel back, Gavin Stansbury at defensive end and Askew, who was recruited and spent his first three years at receiver, at strongside linebacker. Two others (defensive tackle Ivan Robinson and quarterback Clay Honeycutt, who's now a reserve safety) are playing but not starting. Nehemiah Hicks was considered to be either a defensive end or tight end and became a tight end. The other two players in the defensive class are no longer on the team.
  • The 2011 class -- the final class signed by former head coach Mike Sherman -- brought 13 defensive players. Deshazor Everett, a cornerback with ability to play safety, is currently the defense's best player. Safeties Howard Matthews and Floyd Raven and linebacker Steven Jenkins also emerged as starters out of that group. One of the big fish landed late in that class, defensive end Brandon Alexander, has rarely played. He's now getting some playing time at tight end. Linebacker Donnie Baggs entered this season as the starting middle linebacker but is now a reserve. Tyrell Taylor is rotating at defensive end. The rest of the group hasn't made any impact at all. Five players in that group are no longer with the program.
  • The 2012 class, the first one Sumlin signed after essentially two months on the job, had some holdovers that committed to the program under Sherman. It is a mixed bag. Four of those players are starting as either true sophomores (Julien Obioha at defensive end, Alonzo Williams at defensive tackle and De'Vante Harris at cornerback) or in one case, a senior (cornerback Tramain Jacobs, who was a junior college transfer). Defensive end Tyrone Taylor, brother of Tyrell, gets some playing time at defensive end. Edward Pope, who was a receiver/defensive back, is playing receiver for the Aggies. A car accident took away one member from that class -- defensive tackle Polo Manukainiu, who died in a crash in July and is being honored by the team every week this season. A spinal injury took away another member, linebacker Michael Richardson, who played as a freshman. He had successful surgery and was fortunate to not suffer any major physical issues, but is no longer playing football. Defensive back Kenneth Marshall, though on the team, was not part of the 105-man roster during preseason training camp. Linebacker Jordan Richmond transferred to Navarro College in the offseason and one player in the class, defensive tackle Edmund Ray, never made it to campus because of qualifying issues.

Five things: Auburn-Texas A&M

October, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What a difference a year makes.

The Auburn team coming into Kyle Field today is much different from the one that hosted Texas A&M a year ago. Both teams are 5-1 and ranked in the top 25 (A&M is seventh, Auburn is 24th), and each has a head coach known for his innovative offensive mind (Gus Malzahn for Auburn; Kevin Sumlin for A&M), so it should be an entertaining and compelling 60 minutes in this SEC West Division clash. Here are five things to watch:

1. Auburn run game vs. A&M run D: Auburn is one of the best rushing teams in the country (287 yards per game), and it's no fluke. The Tigers have three solid running backs (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant), plus a starting quarterback who is a running threat, too (Nick Marshall). Texas A&M's run defense is 13th in the SEC (201.17 yards allowed per game) and struggled through much of the first half, though defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by his unit's performance against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 133 yards on the ground. This battle will be key.

2. Defending Manziel: No defense has really had an answer for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only team to defeat the Aggies, which was No. 1 Alabama, benefited from two interceptions but still conceded 562 yards to the redshirt sophomore quarterback. Manziel bounced back from two turnovers last week vs. Ole Miss to lead a come-from-behind effort in a 41-38 win. How Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson attacks Manziel will be interesting to watch. A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said Auburn has one of the more talented defenses that Texas A&M will see this year.

3. Will A&M generate a pass rush? Texas A&M has been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to sacking opposing passers. The Aggies have just five sacks this season; Illinois is the only team in the nation that has fewer (four). Snyder stressed that his group has to be able to generate a pass rush sometimes without having to blitz. If they can't, Marshall and his Auburn teammates will have time to do what they want offensively.

4. Tempo: Both teams like to play at a fast pace. Expect Texas A&M to continue that, as usual. Will Auburn? Malzahn noted that the Tigers are at their best at a high pace, but earlier this week, he told reporters, "Sometimes you may need to try to keep it away from [Manziel]." Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who knows Malzahn well, tried to be methodical in the first half of the Rebels' game with A&M last week. Will Auburn employ a similar strategy in hopes of keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter?

5. Wrinkles: Auburn played freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson last week in place of Marshall, who rested with a knee injury, and Johnson played well. Could he see action on Saturday? How will the Auburn defensive front attack Manziel? The Aggies have seen a variety of defensive fronts all season and at times have had to adjust pass-protection schemes on the fly. Will the Tigers mix it up? Will defensive back Deshazor Everett, A&M's best defensive player, play (he left Ole Miss game with an injury), and if so, will he line up at cornerback or safety (or both) now that safety Floyd Raven is healthy again? How much will Manziel run the ball on designed draw plays? Against Arkansas two weeks ago, there were no designed runs in the game plan. Last week against Ole Miss, he did it with some regularity. These two head coaches and their staffs are creative, so don't be surprised to see a few things you haven't yet this season.
Texas A&M AggiesNelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsDefense has been a struggle for Texas A&M this season, but the Aggies have shown an ability to rise up when needed in recent victories over Arkansas and Ole Miss.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It has been a season of challenges for the Texas A&M defense.

The basic numbers, which are well-documented, aren't good. The Aggies are 113th in total defense nationally (474.3 yards allowed per game) and 104th in rushing defense (201.17) while allowing 32 points per game.

But for all the criticism the Texas A&M defense endured this season, and for Saturday's performance in particular, there are recent signs of progress for the much-maligned unit. In Texas A&M's last two games the defense got key stops late to help the Aggies secure victory. Against Arkansas on Sept. 28, the Razorbacks pulled to within five points of Texas A&M on three separate occasions in the second half. The Aggies' defense responded with a stop each time.

On Saturday against Ole Miss, after allowing three consecutive touchdown drives and four Rebels touchdowns in a stretch of five second-half possessions, the unit buckled down when it had to, forcing a three-and-out on the Rebels' final possession late in the fourth quarter. That got the ball back to the offense, which drove downfield and set up a game-winning field goal attempt for Josh Lambo.

"The kids had a lot of belief," defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said of the fourth-quarter stop. "We knew we needed a stop, especially the way our offense was playing. I thought the kids did a good job. They adjusted, checked to the formation. I believe they were trying to go four vertical and we kind of took that away and were able to get off the field."

In fact, Snyder said he was pleased with several aspects of the Aggies' performance on Saturday. The first half was a solid one for the group, as they allowed just 10 points on five Ole Miss possessions. Through three quarters, the unit forced three punts, a turnover on downs and an interception in eight possessions. Though they allowed 297 yards in the first three quarters, it translated to just 17 points for the Rebels at that time.

But the fourth quarter became a different story. The Rebels had three consecutive touchdown drives and 165 yards in the quarter. Ole Miss ate up large chunks of yardage, hitting plays 21, 21, 19 and 50 yards, respectively. They succeeded on too many of what Snyder calls "explosive plays."

"Coach Snyder always talks about 'Let's not give up explosives, because if we don't give up explosives against a lot of teams, we can shut down a lot of teams,'" sophomore defensive end Julien Obioha said. "Monday he pulls up the stats and shows us how we do and he showed us that our explosives were way too high and if we take away all of our explosives and big plays and critical errors, we would have held Ole Miss to about 250 or 260 yards, which is a good game for a defense. We just need to eliminate big plays."

Texas A&M has certainly had its fair share of issues when it comes to allowing big plays. This season, the Aggies have allowed 10 or more yards on 22.5 percent of plays it's faced, which ranks 105th in the nation.

Youth and inexperience continues to factor into the Aggies' success, or lack thereof, defensively. With 11 freshmen on the defensive two-deep depth chart, there are some issues that are a byproduct of players simply not having enough playing time. But because the talent level of those freshmen is high and other factors, including injuries, the Aggies are having to endure those growing pains.

And it has been rare that the Aggies have had consistency in its starting defensive personnel from week to week.

On Saturday, the Aggies had to finish the game minus their best defensive player, Deshazor Everett, because of an injury sustained in the first half. His status for this Saturday's game against Auburn is uncertain, though it wouldn't be surprising to see him suit up since he tried to make an effort to get back into the Ole Miss game. They were already without starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. That meant the Aggies were operating without two of their better defensive players in crunch time on Saturday.

Even with those issues, one of the most important areas to head coach Kevin Sumlin and his coaching staff hasn't been as bad as the other aforementioned statistics. The Aggies are allowing third-down conversions 39.5 percent of the time (72nd nationally). It isn't quite as good as last season (32.4 percent, 16th) but it hasn't been as bleak as some of the other areas.

The key for the Aggies moving forward is improving in that area and taking what they did in the first three quarters or the final drive against Ole Miss -- or in the aforementioned instances at Arkansas -- and making it happen for four quarters.

"That's the key, consistency," Snyder said. "It was a little bit different game this week. I thought we played pretty decent for about three quarters. Then in the fourth quarter, we were just bad, period. We had been pretty good in the second half. That's what we keep talking to these guys about, consistency. Let's play an entire game."

They also have to get better at pressuring opposing quarterbacks, something the Aggies have struggled mightily at doing this season. Their five sacks tie them for 118th in the country.

"The one thing I challenged our guys with is we have to get some pass rush," Snyder said. " I understand it's difficult with the type of offenses that we're facing...[but] we need to generate some pass rush without me having to make a [blitz] call to generate that pass rush."

Senior defensive back Toney Hurd Jr. said the group simply needs to continue to work at it all of these things.

"It's just timing," Hurd said. "We just have to keep working on our timing, fitting our gaps and just becoming a sound defense. Do all the little things right and the big picture will be better in the end if we do the little things right in the beginning."

Midseason report: Texas A&M

October, 15, 2013
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The 2013 season has been far from perfect so far for Texas A&M, but overall, it has still been pretty good.

Despite some of the injuries, defensive struggles, early-season attention (both positive and negative), sitting at 5-1 and No. 7 in the country is a pretty good place to be.

Many preseason questions have been answered. Will quarterback Johnny Manziel's offseason affect his play or affect the team? The answer is a resounding "no," and Manziel has been arguably the best player in college football through the first half of the season.

How will the Aggies' offense run with a new offensive coordinator, Clarence McKinney? So far, pretty smoothly. The Aggies haven't missed a beat in the transition from former offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to McKinney as the playcaller. They're No. 3 in the nation in total offense, No. 4 in scoring offense and No. 2 in the all-important third-down conversion category. Mike Evans has emerged as one of the nation's best receivers and the running game has been strong.

Will the defense come along quickly? This one hasn't netted a positive answer. The Aggies have been one of the worst defensive teams in the country statistically, ranking 113th in yards allowed per game (474.3) and 104th against the run, though they have been middle of the pack on third downs (72nd). Youth, inexperience and ever-shifting personnel have made the job a challenging one in Year 2 for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder after an impressive first year in Aggieland when the Aggies' D outperformed expectations and operated with limited depth in 2012.

That being said, the Aggies have still won and lost only to the No. 1 team in the country, Alabama, by seven points. Certainly, they'd like to be undefeated, but if they continue to win in the second half of the season, a bright outlook lay ahead for Texas A&M.

Offensive MVP: Johnny Manziel
Anybody wondering if Manziel would have a "sophomore slump" or that his eventful offseason would affect him can forget about it. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has looked even better this season, completing 73.2 percent of his passes for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 438 yards and five scores. He's focused on passing more, but is still as dangerous as ever with his feet and delivers in the clutch.

Defensive MVP: Deshazor Everett
If Everett could play every position on defense, you'd have to think the Aggies would utilize him as such. As it is, he has been terrific at both cornerback and safety, playing the first five games with a cast from a broken thumb suffered in preseason camp. He has 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, two pass breakups, a fumble recovery and two defensive touchdowns.

Planning for success: Texas A&M

October, 10, 2013
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After an off week, Texas A&M (4-1, 1-1 SEC) returns to the field on Saturday to take on Ole Miss (3-2, 1-2) at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss. The No. 9 Aggies escaped with a win last season; can they do it again? Here are five keys to doing so:

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyWith injuries still affecting the Aggies secondary, Texas A&M will need another solid outing from Deshazor Everett.
1. Avoid the turnover bug: Last season when these two teams met, it was the Aggies' worst showing in the turnover department. They turned it over six times, which put them in a 10-point fourth quarter deficit. Thanks to an improbable catch by Mike Evans on third-and-19 and some heroics from Johnny Manziel, Ryan Swope and Toney Hurd Jr., among others, the Aggies were still able to pull out the win. But another such showing with turnovers is unlikely to yield the same result.

2. Grow up quickly: The Aggies will turn to a true freshman, Isaiah Golden, to fill in at one of the starting defensive tackle spots in place of Kirby Ennis, who will miss the rest of the season because of season-ending knee surgery. The run defense has struggled this season, and fortunately Golden has some playing experience, having appeared in four games this year. There are other players with experience across the defensive line (Julien Obioha, Alonzo Williams, Gavin Stansbury) so they'll help Golden along, but he'll have to grow up fast against the running of Jeff Scott and Bo Wallace.

3. Contain the receivers: Ole Miss has a solid quartet of pass catchers led by junior Donte Moncrief and true freshman Laquon Treadwell. The pair has combined for 47 catches and 605 yards in five games. The A&M secondary hopes to regain the services of safety Floyd Raven, who missed the last three games with a collarbone injury. If not, cornerback Deshazor Everett will remain at free safety, a spot where he has picked up defensive touchdowns in two consecutive games.

4. Road mentality: The Aggies haven't lost a game away from Kyle Field since Kevin Sumlin took over as head coach. SEC road games are almost never easy and with Ole Miss coming off back-to-back conference losses, the Rebels will be motivated to right the ship at home.

5. Spreading the wealth: The Aggies used all four scholarship running backs effectively in their win over Arkansas and Johnny Manziel was able to also distribute to six different receivers. The coaches consistently say that they'll take what the defensive gives them, but if they can continue to utilize a wide range of offensive options like they did last week, it makes the potent A&M offense that much more difficult to defend.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M's defense struggled through much of the Aggies' first five games, trying to find consistency as personnel has shifted as a result of suspensions (in the first two games), injuries or simply the youth and inexperience that permeates the two-deep depth chart.

But it hasn't been all bad, and there have been some bright spots through the early stages of the season -- perhaps none as bright as defensive back Deshazor Everett.

The junior cornerback/safety has been many things for the Aggies this season: steady, versatile, a source of leadership, a playmaker. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder called him "an eraser," which seems appropriate since Everett has made a touchdown-saving tackle or two this season.

One thing Everett hasn't been all year is two-handed. Well, sort of.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyCornerback/safety Deshazor Everett has been one of the bright spots on the Texas A&M defense.
The 6-foot, 185-pound Everett broke the thumb on his right hand during preseason training camp, but hasn't missed any game time as a result. He played with a cast throughout the first five games but Everett is happy to say that when the Aggies (4-1, 1-1 SEC) go to Oxford, Miss., on Saturday to meet the Rebels (3-2, 1-2), he plans to play cast-free for the first time this season.

"Oh yes, definitely," Everett said with a smile, "I'll have two hands in that game."

So far, it hasn't hindered his play much at all. In fact, Everett scored a defensive touchdown in each of the last two games. In the Aggies' 42-13 win over SMU on Sept. 21, Everett had a 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown. On Sept. 28 against Arkansas, he stepped in front of a Brandon Allen pass and returned an interception 34 yards for a score, which proved critical in the Aggies' 45-33 win that day.

"I can't wait until he gets that cast off, then maybe he'll score twice in a game," head coach Kevin Sumlin said.

On a defense that has seen players go in and out of the lineup for myriad reasons and is trying to find its footing after a horrendous start (the Aggies are 112th nationally in yards allowed per game), Everett is a bright light and someone the coaching staff can rely on in multiple roles.

Though he's the team's best cornerback, Snyder and secondary coach Marcel Yates elected to shift Everett back to free safety to alleviate some concerns they had with the back end of the defense. The results since the switch have been positive.

"He understands what we're trying to do," Sumlin said. "He's playing out of position really, because he's our best corner. We move him, you give up something, you think, he's also one of our better DBs and gives us speed back in the back and has saved some touchdowns this year, no doubt. And has given us the opportunity to line up and play defense again and I can't tell you how critical that's been."

Everett is second on the team with 31 tackles and also has two tackles for loss, two interceptions and a pass breakup in addition to his two defensive touchdowns. Against Arkansas, cornerback Tramain Jacobs -- who assumed Everett's cornerback position with Everett at safety -- performed admirably and will be a key player for the Aggies as they continue to buy time until starting free safety Floyd Raven returns from a collarbone injury.

"I'm the first one to take my hat off; I thought he played well," Snyder said of Jacobs. "They went after him and targeted him, they continued to target him and they're going to target him again next Saturday. And I thought he really rose to the occasion."

Everett had two pins put in his thumb after breaking it, and if it was up to him, he wouldn't have even come off the practice field when it occurred in August. He recalled asking a trainer if it could simply be taped up on the spot so he could continue practicing, but he was told no, he had to get X-rays on it.

"I couldn't move it and it was just hanging there," Everett said. "I just wanted to keep playing basically. I didn't want, just because of a little injury, [to not] continue practicing. I could practice without my thumb or play without my thumb. People have played with injuries before. It was just a small injury for me."

The DeRidder, La., product attributes his tough attitude to being undersized and hanging with bigger kids growing up, being "pushed around" so he could be toughened up. In addition to his toughness and solid play, he has been willing to do anything. Sumlin referenced Everett's willingness to play on special teams when the Aggies needed him, spending time on kickoff return units when asked.

"He just goes in there and does it and runs back off the field because he wants to win," Sumlin said.

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